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A chance for rural broadband

How to provide education to remote areas and bridge the digital divide

Unlike the time of New Deal infrastructure investments, broadband providers are not forced to run wires for Internet access to anyone who wants it. This is a good thing, because not even the Baby Bells could afford such a massive investment. In the age of deregulated utilities, providers will only roll out where they know they’ll make money, and only to the most profitable centers first–the big cities.

The downside to this is that rural areas have little chance of getting broadband, unless you consider DirecPC or some similar satellite system to be broadband. And because high-speed Net access is a prerequisite of doing business, small towns are turning into ghost towns as their businesses and their labor migrates to urban areas. (It’s the opposite of what people predicted the Net would do to population densities in the United States.)

The net result is a form of digital divide that is geographically drawn–the haves occupying the cities, the have-nots sticking to rural areas. And as educational media continues to transform itself from paper to Web pages, the divide will only grow more severe in coming years, unless someone does something to encourage broadband providers to build out into small towns.

In the 106th Congress, several congressional leaders introduced bills that would give broadband providers tax incentives to provide service to rural areas. But Congress got mired in partisan gridlock and couldn’t even pass its spending bills, let alone deal with such trifles as the digital divide. Nonetheless, the bills received enough sponsors to be reintroduced in the 107th Congress, with some minor tweaks. As a news story on our site today describes, lawmakers are confident that they can get a bill through conference committees and to President Bush this year.

Not only is this great news for small-town residents, but it’s great for city dwellers, as the cities start to strain from infrastructure issues and sprawl out into surrounding counties. Many city folk I talk to dream of the day when they can buy an old farmhouse in the country and make an honest living on the Net. Thanks to smart people like Representative Phil English and the departed Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that day may yet come.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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